Jimy SeiTang (Stygian Stride, Rhyton, Psychic Ills): Interview
“I’m fascinated by the performer-audience concept; am I supposed to give you everything, or are you compelled enough to ask me questions and have me answer you?”
It’s very orchestrated while being free and dense.
At times, it just sounds like one big instrument - the horns, the bass, the organs, and the drums sound like one cohesive thing. It’s one sound.
There’s a lot of detail within it, too, though.
But that’s where the beauty lies. I was really pushing that with the Ills - that was something that hadn’t been achieved in this setting. I was trying to find things that were unique in music that I could bring to this setting aggressively enough that it would make a difference. It’s a risk - but maybe that’s who I am in general. I like to take risks as an artist, and I don’t want everything to be controlled. It’s easy to be jaded if you know too much - one has to have the balance of knowledge and intuition. All good musicians have that. If you have too much technique you’ll just be progging out, nerding out. But you also have to groove; as much as some people disassociate themselves from that, it’s an essential component to music making. Whether it’s miniscule or massive, groove makes music move. I don’t want to sound cheesy but it’s true.
With Rhyton that’s definitely there.
Well, with any music, even the freest stuff has a movement to it. It doesn’t have to be like R&B. As long as it has a cycle that repeats itself in some way that makes sense and propels the music.
Right, if you listen to drummers like Sunny Murray or John Stevens, they swing even if the music is diffuse.
So that’s the thing with making that music for me - it was about trying to figure out these little things that I brought upon to do with the Ills. Now that I had a new skill, what would I do with it? I’d proven myself and felt I had to make the record. It also brought my identity out - I could understand myself a little better; the music was sometimes a little scary to make because I didn’t know what was going to happen. Now I feel like I can associate myself with the music I really like, and I know that I can make something like that and most importantly, it’s made me feel like I can make more of this music in the future.
Was it finished two years ago, or were you tweaking it a lot over time?
It was basically finished in May 2012. We did like two mixing sessions and that was it; then I shopped it around. I remember when I finished it, I thought maybe it was too ambitious to send it to Thrill Jockey right away, so I shopped it around and other labels weren’t interested or couldn’t do it right away. I was talking to Dave and asked him if Bettina [Richards, of Thrill Jockey] would check it out; I sent it to her and she casually mentioned at dinner that she’d like to put it out, which was surprising. That’s when things came together. Now I’m thinking on concepts that I’d like to go deeper into for the next record.
A lot of electronic music is very premeditated, and it’s predictable or sequenced mathematically. Patterns and so forth - you know? I wanted to explore it and beautify it, in a way that would be more organic, not the sort of ProTools environment.
Like what would be an example?
For me it’ll be more of trying to understand the electronic elements and take them further, that’s all.
Do you play bass on the record or is it strictly electronic?
It’s entirely electronic - synthesizers, keyboards, drum machines, and sequencers. The next record I might add the drum element into it - if you listen to a lot of what I’m influenced by, that’s a part of it. That will make it propulsive.
It does have a flow, though.
Yeah, but to add live drums - it’s very hard to pull off because the drummer is always chasing the machine, and the drummer has to be on the hunt, on a marathon going forever. That’s always been around in rock, and when you do that in electronic music, the machine almost has a man in it. It’s so easy to dismiss electronics as being lifeless and dead; fixed, you know - when you’re talking about analog oscillators, they get out of tune all the time and they’re different depending on the temperature, so that’s one thing that a lot of artists don’t deal with correctly. That, for me, comes from having played acoustic instruments, and when you’re an acoustic player, from hall to hall and room to room your instrument will change. You have to understand that your responsibility is to make up the difference at all times. It was always strange to me how people didn’t understand how to compensate for that with their instruments - if the room is cold, the wood’s going to contract. If you haven’t practiced, your embouchure is weak. All that contributes to the final output, and I’ve always thought that as a musician, it was part of the job description.
Being sensitive to that as an electronic musician is interesting, and I can tell you that I hadn’t thought about it before.
I spent a lot of time trying to come to terms with it - I had to, because if I didn’t I would’ve delved deep into this baggage without unloading it properly. It’s become a new road of discovery; sometimes you have to dig deep to find some good stuff. It can’t be so easy or trivial - most good art doesn’t come from that. It’s a struggle and it’s got to be something you want to learn and be committed to. I remember that year when I was making the record, I was invested in it and made sure I knew everything I possibly could without going nuts.
How would you do the music live?
That’s where I’m at now - I never intended it to be live, but the way I would conceive it is how Miles did in that middle period. He had a jam that he had sketched out; we’ve got a box and we can’t deviate from that, but what happens inside of it is what happens.
He had a very codified style of orchestration from his horn. It’s gestural and from the trumpet; the ensemble is following those moves in a horizontal, allover manner.
What made a big impact on me was reading a Keith Jarrett interview from that time; Miles brought him in and told him not to play piano, but keyboard. I understood that I had to force myself to be a little uncomfortable. Miles trusted his musicality enough that he would wrestle it and figure it out. Sometimes you have to push yourself and have others push you.
Going back to the live thing, now I have to think about it, and I’m not going to focus on note-for-note recreation, but a vibe, a gist, and make something that’s easier to digest live and also easier to play. I might bring in one other person [Rob Smith was on drums for the album release show at Brooklyn’s Death By Audio], but I still think I can do it all myself. I also feel that the shows I want to do going forward are going to be the template for the next record. I want the listener to be interested in what I’m doing now enough to follow where I’m going. I’m fascinated by the performer-audience concept; am I supposed to give you everything, or are you compelled enough to ask me questions and have me answer you? I think a lot of Miles’ anti-crowd vibe was that he wanted to get an emotion from that.
But that’s real-time arrangement, and he’s directing the band spatially.
I don’t think that the concepts I’ve had are that crazy - they’ve lied dormant until it made sense to bring them out for other people. This record has opened another door for me in that I have the ability to make this music happen. I’d love to do some film scoring, for example.
I saw that film teaser you had for “Drift.” Is there more?
Yeah, there’s another one for “Taiga” and there’s actually an event that happens with that. We actually left the music video open-ended to evoke (hopefully) the response of wanting more, which is good. I collaborated with a good friend from college who did videos for Psychic Ills; he does a lot of video work, and he’s always been the visual outlet for a lot of this stuff. That is also key to what the project is all about - the work is important, but it has to be good enough to stand alone. Musicians want visuals but often it’s run-of-the-mill stuff with nothing going on, and I wanted to do something more than that - the music is actually set to something active in the film, they’re not separate or abstracted from one another. We’ve got enough of that going on already.
There are a lot of interesting film-music collaborations - Stan Brakhage and James Tenney, for example.
Actually, my inspiration was Florian Fricke’s (Popol Vuh) relationship with Werner Herzog. That, to me, is the template. That’s what the tune “Fade into Bolivian” is a reference to, as a cross-reference to Aguirre and Mike Tyson - Tyson said that in an interview when he meant to say “fade into oblivion.” Is he fading or is he emerging? That drone in the last piece is heavily influenced by that kind of madness.
Of course, in Aguirre the funny thing is the madder Kinski gets, the clearer the film becomes.
Exactly, that’s exactly it. The descent is actually an ascent, and the more you’re into this level of craziness, the more holy and pure it gets. I feel like a lot of artists don’t take the time to do this - it takes too long and it’s risky, and they don’t have control. It’s hard to come to terms with, and I think in the past a lot of musicians relied on nature to see this through.
I think musicians and artists aren’t always able to deal with time correctly. Being able to trust in the evolution of one’s work over a long period of time doesn’t really exist very often today.
For me, that’s what it’s all about - as obsessive as I am about the artists I’m into, what I like to do most is trace their evolution. What took them from this place to that place? You can hear the progression naturally with really interesting artists. When someone does a big, weird jump, it’s suspect - you should just let it happen.
As in Chick Corea, moving from Blue Mitchell to Anthony Braxton to Return to Forever.
Well, that was Scientology.
Yeah, we know that now - I don’t think it was as obvious then. And he’s still a respected musician and composer. There’s no doubt he’s an excellent artist, even if some of his ideas became corny.
Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul could have been on the same path - they were acoustic piano players that went into the realm of electronics. That was another thing I realized, my synthesizers predated a lot of things, and that goes back to the bass, which was my entryway into the 1970s jazz-rock fusion. I remember I was always mesmerized watching Zawinul play live with Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, and Alex Acuña. He’s surrounded by a bank of synthesizers - when I was 12 or 13, watching those concert films I thought that shit was crazy. He looked like he was in a space station - two Arps, a Rhodes, a piano - it’s a world of sounds. I began to understand his thinking - things that influenced me growing up weren’t just around the bass.
When did you start playing electric bass?
I was in eighth grade, but I did one of those things where as soon as I found the beauty of the upright, I ditched the electric - once I found out about Scott La Faro and Paul Chambers, that was it. I begged and begged - originally I wanted to play cello because I love Bach so much. It’s like a mechanized time machine, those cello suites - they’re so ingrained in my mind. I had to learn one of them for bass in college for a recital, and there’s the whole thing with bass players where you can transcribe the cello suites down or at pitch, in which you play the bass in a high register with all sorts of crazy finger and bridge positions, coupled with the intense bowing you have to do. It’s crazy. If you’re gifted, that’s commitment - learning the cello suites, they are swinging and I remember my bass teacher would always tell me I swung too much. I was down on myself for that, but it was the beginning of my understanding that technique wasn’t the endgame. There are some innate gifts that aren’t technique-based, and I have a lot of those. To be able to recall feel over and over again is not easy to do. I remember doing juries and they’d always be violin or viola professors, and they would always tell me I was too swinging - I thought it was a criticism that I was too loose and I needed to be more rigid. I spent like six hours a day trying to figure out how to do that, and then realized I had something that was good, and that I had to utilize it.
It’s funny because when you listen to Janos Starker’s Kodaly or Bach cello suites, he’s actually not as rigid and that’s what’s great about him. Those performances have got personality.
Pablo Casals versus Yo-Yo Ma, versus Mstislav Rostropovich, or Pierre Fournier, Gregor Piatigorsky, they’ve all got a different approach. I remember being in high school and watching the Beethoven trios with Piatigorsky, Jascha Heifetz, and William Primrose, and they’re so in sync. Everyone’s notes start and end at the same place, their ability to lock in is very different from rock - it’s grander. They’re lifting, beginning and ending at the same time.
Gesture in classical music versus jazz or rock is codified in an entirely different way, though.
That understanding is ingrained from an early age - there’s a section leader, you look at the principal, the stand partner. That has made me able to be the improviser that I am - knowing how to read between the lines when the music is being played. There are very subtle things that are happening while you’re playing the music. Otherwise, you’re lost - you literally feel naked because you missed something and it’s very apparent. Everybody knows it - you’ve got to stay in line. When you’re in the groove, though, it builds and it’s lovely. I feel like a lot of that intimacy, knowing how to play chamber music, is very important.
What translates to you as a solo composer and musician, as far as what you’ve learned from chamber music?
A lot of that is in the arranging, and my now-developing relationship with arrangement. I had never thought of myself that way and I’ve realized that you can be subtle to that effect. Miles could look at you and change the whole vibe.
That’s arranging, in a sense.
It is and it isn’t - how that translates to solo performance is understanding how to build the music up and act like an orchestral conductor. You need to know when to bring in the strings or push the brass out, but you have to be responsible with that sort of power. You’re bestowed with an opportunity - you’re the one that’s pushing the buttons.